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Reflections on Watershed Restoration from Oregon to Ellicott City, Climate Change and Adaptation

My professional career for the past 15 or so years has revolved around environmental restoration. I’ve typically worked at watershed scales in planning, identification, prioritization and implementation of small to larg(ish) restoration projects – from rain gardens in Maryland to levee removal in Oregon.

I’ve operated under this assumption, somewhat unconsciously early on in my career, that restoration works, it helps, and it will get our degraded natural systems to a functional place that will support life. That is, largely, the intent of restoration, I thought – to get water bodies to a point when they will support healthy populations of insects and fish, that then support other species.

The watersheds out west in Oregon are far less degraded than they are here in the Mid-Atlantic. In Oregon, one species was the primary focus – salmon. Restoration activities focused on creating and enhancing wetlands and off-channel habitat for juvenile salmonids to rear, as well as addressing and removing barriers to spawning habitat. Watershed plans were developed that identified the highest priority rearing and spawning restoration projects. Other watershed concerns do exist – drinking water protection, water quantity issues, invasive species, pollutants such as temperature – but by and large, restoration is focused on salmon. And, in those relatively healthy Pacific Northwest systems with goals revolving around a single species, it does seem that cumulative restoration is working and resulting in a functional “lift.” The University of Washington was studying this exact thing when I was out there and have documented results in a recent paper for the Lower Columbia River Estuary (Diefenderfer et al, 2016[1]).

When I moved back East and started studying watershed restoration from a more technical perspective at the Center for Watershed Protection, my eyes opened. Some of my first projects were around Columbia, SC and Fairfax County, VA. The Columbia, SC watershed (Crane Creek Watershed), was more like the watersheds that I knew from Oregon – relatively intact with large acreages of forest and areas/species of special concern. The Fairfax County watershed (Accotink Watershed), was a wreck. I was blown away by the depths of the incised stream channels, at the encroachment from development, at the quality of the water that didn’t support much life at all. This was the kind of watershed that I grew up with in southeast PA but didn’t recognize as “degraded” until that point in my life due to a lack experience and context from other areas.

I helped in different parts of the watershed restoration planning process for each of these and other watersheds around the country when I worked at the Center – establishing goals, engaging stakeholders, doing various field assessments, prioritizing, generating cost estimates and environmental benefits for projects. I don’t know the outcomes of those watershed planning efforts – did the communities attain their identified watershed goals? Did they build any of the projects? Are the same people still trying to fix their watersheds? Have the goals changed since that time (like 8-10 years ago)? How is climate change impacting the communities in those watersheds and their goals for restoration?

I began studying the watershed draining to Old Ellicott City, the Tiber Hudson, in 2011, and I’ve come to know and understand this watershed more than any other. It began as a watershed plan, the typical process the Center uses to study watersheds. The watershed size – 3.5 square miles – is, by the standards of watershed science people, a “restorable” area – about the optimal size to be able to determine a baseline, define a measurable goal, and assess progress to the goal. Through a stakeholder-driven process (i.e., meetings at the Miller Branch library, Judge’s Bench 😊, etc.) and with our professional team at the Center, we identified a long-term goal of an increase in the IBI – the index of biological integrity, that is, a functional lift to support aquatic life (fish and bugs), and an intermediate goal to reduce the “flashiness index.” The flashiness index (Baker et al, 2004[2]) tracks gradual changes in stream flashiness and accounts for external variability while masking changes associated with weather patterns or climate change. The idea is that restoration of the natural hydrologic regime would show a decrease in the stream flashiness index over time, which would then help to reach the long-term goal of improving aquatic life. Three devastating floods later (2011, 2016 and 2018), I’m realizing that it’s not realistic to have a long-term restoration goal for the Tiber Hudson that revolves around increasing the IBI. The time horizon for restoring this watershed to that goal, and maybe any watersheds and communities feeling the brunt of climate change, is shortening fast.

Let’s look at some other context with the federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits administered by States to local jurisdictions through Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permits. In MD, some municipalities are nearing their achievement for requirements for impervious cover treatment under their permits[3]. Much of this is due to bean-counting exercises for how various projects get “credited” – namely, new credits for stream restoration that have been established by the Chesapeake Bay Program are enabling some jurisdictions to meet or surpass their targets much quicker than expected. What does this mean? Are the streams in those jurisdictions now supporting aquatic biodiversity? Are the watersheds restored? Is the job done? No. Of course, it isn’t. Whether stream restoration alone can result in functional lift is a debate in and of itself in the scientific community. Regardless, walk above or below any stream restoration project and you are likely to find erosion, incised channels, widened streams. Don’t get me wrong, I believe stream restoration is part of an integrated approach as I argue below, but it’s not the only answer or way to get from here to there, and just because a jurisdiction has done a bunch of stream restoration doesn’t mean there is nothing left to do.

There’s no doubt that governments, municipalities and non-profits are spending loads of money on all sorts of restoration. Some estimate the total cost of restoring the Chesapeake Bay from $7 billion for individual state costs to $28 billion for the entire watershed (Congressional Research Service, 2018[4]). Whether things are improving from the investments made into the Bay since the mid-60s, is debatable, depending on who you talk to. I think it’s fair to say that things are improving in some ways – we see crab and oyster populations increasing, some water impairments like phosphorus and sediment improving, and these improvements being made despite increases in population and impervious surfaces. But are these improvements happening fast enough? Are they happening fast enough to now compensate for the shrinking timeframe that is being forced upon us from climate change? Are they happening fast enough to make our watersheds resilient to a changing environment? I don’t think they are, esp. when I am looking from the more local context of the Tiber Hudson watershed.

This has been a real struggle for me lately, occupying much of my brain power when I’m walking or swimming or otherwise trying to decompress – I come back to thinking about this new reality and what it means for those of us that are on the ground trying to make a difference through environmental restoration. Recently, my Board and I completed our first strategic plan for Howard EcoWorks. I struggled a lot with our environmental restoration goals – I tried setting them 20 years out and then backed into how many projects and how much workforce would be needed to get there – it was overwhelming. I kept shrinking the goal but there came a point where I just didn’t want to shrink it anymore yet there would still be too much work and not enough people or funds to get it done. And this is irrespective of continued environmental degradation, and a shrinking timeframe within which to get it done due to climate change.

I think about Ellicott City and the Tiber Hudson watershed as a case study for Where Watershed Restoration Meets Climate Change, and the conclusion that I come to for this watershed, is that yes, we need to do restoration, that a reduction in flashiness index goal still makes sense (though no one is currently using it that I’m aware of). The long-term goal of increasing the IBI doesn’t make sense but the type of restoration that is the focus makes a difference, while concurrently we need to adapt. So, go with the retention projects to reduce runoff but also go with restoring both the natural and built infrastructure – stream restoration, re-build walls, floodproof buildings, increase capacity of under-sized culverts and storm drain systems, and stay on top of maintenance of streams and stormwater infrastructure. These actions will enable the watershed to better withstand lesser storm events that are continuously weakening the system. By being more resilient to the more frequent storm events, the watershed will be less vulnerable to larger storm events. And we need to monitor – establish volume reduction goals associated with flashiness or a similar metric so that progress can be documented.

This is where I think hazard mitigation planning and water quality meet and where state, local and federal governments can find more synergy in resource allocation, programs, funding and technical assistance to better support communities facing hazards being exacerbated by climate change.

A hazard can be defined as impact times probability. We are seeing both of these variables increase with climate change, therefore we need to expect and plan for more hazards. The hazards are going to vary across regions –flash floods, storm surges, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, drought and extreme heat, resulting in food shortages, public health issues, socioeconomic distress, further ecological degradation and more.

Can emergency management offices work with environmental and resource protection offices? Can these, each and together, work with agriculture? Forestry? Can the MS4 permit goals be expanded to include water quantity management and ecosystem services? Can hazard mitigation meet with water resource planning? We are seeing movement in these directions across the nation. Some examples are below – these are from my own experience, things I learned about recently at the Resilient America Roundtable hosted by the National Academy of Sciences where I represented one of the Ellicott City stakeholders, and from experiences of people that I know in areas around the country.

My bottom line in all this is that restoration alone isn’t enough, the timeline is too short now to get us to biological lift in these systems. We need to adapt and adapt quickly. We need to be more holistic in our planning and implementation work. Using Ellicott City as a case study, we can determine a framework for other watersheds that 1) defines goals, 2) assesses the hazards and risks, 3) plans for an increase of the impact and frequency of hazards, 4) looks at existing resources, programs and funding mechanisms for how they can address the watershed goals and hazards simultaneously, 5) monitors progress, 6) adapts to changing conditions, because face it - we are in a changing world and we don’t know what will come next. This needs to be iterative and adaptive and will require coordination at various levels and types of government, non-profit and community groups, human service agencies and the private sector.

Personally, I don’t see any other options.

Some things that I’m working on with Howard EcoWorks and our partners, including some natural climate solutions, include:

Green jobs – this is the core of our work and let’s face this also, if we want change, we need to build an economy around that change. The Local Government Advisory Committee to the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program spent 2019 evaluating workforce development programs and their potential to support environmental improvements. There is some debate around how many actual jobs are out there to support a workforce but local governments generally see opportunity though they don’t necessarily want to be drivers and in some cases feel that they are victims to regulation – it is complex. In my view, if we take a more holistic picture of the workforce opportunities within the context of the environmental need with respect to hazards and climate change, I believe we will be awash in job opportunities and can find ways to put cash in people’s pockets restoring our environment and adapting to change.

Convert grass to functional landscapes – Grass is pretty much useless, yet the fastest growing land cover in the Chesapeake Bay. Let’s ditch the grass in favor of landscapes that support food (for us and wildlife), habitat, ecosystem services and the environment. In 2020, we will be partnering with SilvoCulture to integrate chestnut and other nut trees into our tree planting palettes and projects to promote perennial agriculture in our landscapes.

Biochar – If you know me at all, you’ve heard me talking about biochar and its multiple benefits of carbon sequestration, runoff reduction, water filtration, impact to waste streams, improvement to soil health and more. We are working on a study with the University of Delaware to assess the runoff reduction potential of biochar soil amendment in the soils around Ellicott City. I wrote a blog about this in June, 2019[5].

Some things that I think we can consider locally:

Relaxing standards – we need to empower people to change their behaviors and lifestyles and already have some incentive programs in place to encourage this. I think we could get more people on board to do projects that will enhance personal and community resiliency if some of the standards associated with the incentive programs were relaxed. For example:

Reimbursement programs for “water quality” projects like rain gardens – Rain gardens just don’t fit everywhere and aren’t always the right solution. Non-ponding options like Bayscapes are more flexible for landscape installation in terms of where they can be placed and they are also much less costly while really providing about the same amount of benefit as a rain garden when you are talking about a homeowner scale project. Give “credit” to Bayscapes just like a rain garden to encourage and empower people to create functional areas from their useless turf grass.

Encourage and incentivize more tree planting – yes, a 2” caliper tree will have a greater chance of surviving and provides increased benefits up front but trees of this size are expensive and labor intensive to install. Find ways to support more community and homeowner efforts to reforest and plant smaller sized trees too.

MS4 permits – allow local jurisdictions more flexibility in implementing MS4 permits to be inclusive of flood management and provide support for ecosystem services.

Integrate hazard mitigation planning and water quality planning. Include planning for climate change into each. See some of the narrative above.

Some efforts that I learned about at the Resilient America Roundtable in Atlanta in Fall, 2019:

Charleston Resilience Network - a collaboration of public, private, and non-profit organizations seeking to enhance the resilience of the Charleston, SC, region and communities. Their mission is to foster a unified regional strategy and provide a forum to share science-based information, educate stakeholders, and enhance long-term planning decisions that result in resilience. Resilience requires preparation and planning to absorb, recover and successfully adapt to these hazardous events and conditions.

RISE is a non-profit, economic development organization with a mission to accelerate innovation and business growth around solutions to coastal communities’ resilience challenges. RISE leverages local assets and global networks to enable businesses to develop, demonstrate and scale innovations that help coastal communities adapt to changing climate.

Norfolk, Virginia’s Office of Resilience – Norfolk’s goals include: 1) Design the Coastal Community of the Future; 2) Create Economic Opportunity by Advancing Efforts to Grow Existing & New Industry Sectors; and 3) Advance Initiatives to Connect Communities, Deconcentrate Poverty & Strengthen Neighborhoods. The actions that support these goals and strategies are diverse and range from developing the gold standard in resilient land use codes, to collaborating with global partners to innovate the next generation of water management techniques, to exploring new financing models like catastrophe bonds and social impact bonds

Iowa Flood Center - The Iowa Legislature created the Iowa Flood Center (IFC) in 2009 so that Iowans could have access to the latest technology and resources to help them prepare for floods and become more resilient to their effects. IFC’s outward-facing philosophy focuses on providing direct services to benefit the people of Iowa. The IFC is actively engaged in flood-related projects that help Iowans understand their flood risks and make better flood-related decisions. The IFC puts science-based information and technology in the hands of Iowa’s decision-makers, emergency managers, home- and business-owners, and the general public.

Some other efforts that I have learned about from friends and colleagues:

Dry farming - An initial inspiration for this Oregon State University project was to try to help Oregon farmers adapt to drought conditions that are being made both more volatile and worse due to the pressures of climate change. Dry farming refers to crop production during a dry season by utilizing the residual moisture in the soil from the rainy season, typically in regions that receive 20” or more of annual rainfall. Dry farmers work to conserve soil moisture during long dry periods primarily through a system of careful site selection, soil preparation, planting timing and technique, surface protection, and the use of drought-resistant crop varieties. These strategies could provide an alternative to irrigated crop production in the maritime Pacific Northwest on sites where there is deep soil with good water holding characteristics. According to my farmer friend Teresa Retzlaff of 46 North Farm, “Our farm now grows all of our zucchini, pumpkins and winter squash without irrigation, as well as many tomatoes and dry beans. Participating in this project has also helped us to understand how to use less water for other crops that are not easily dry farmed, reducing our overall water consumption. Although our farm is not pulling our water from salmon bearing rivers, it feels like helping PNW farmers understand how to rely less on water to grow certain crops could positively impact watersheds throughout the region.” Teresa also referenced a new non-profit focused on Dry Farming.

Cisterns – Ridge to Reefs has done excellent work on island systems throughout the globe. After Hurricane Maria, they provided relief and assisted in recovery in many ways. Ridge to Reefs is working to install thousands of gallons of water storage along with the necessary purification infrastructure in water stressed communities across Puerto Rico. Installation of these systems will not only provide immediate relief to tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans, it will also address long standing challenges that can come into play after disasters where the most rural areas and sometimes the last to have services restored. In addition to providing emergency drinking water to tens of thousands of people during natural disasters, these cisterns will serve to significantly augment the day to day water security of many Puerto Ricans in between disasters like Hurricane Maria. Many areas in Puerto Rico have enormous amounts of rainfall that should be captured and utilized to improve the water security of communities.

In the time that it took me to write this blog, an entire continent has gone ablaze, half a billion animals have died and our climate crisis has been epitomized and captured in NASA images from space. Restore and adapt, plan for an uncertain future and let's band together because we're in for rough ride.

by Lori Lilly

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